Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Got rhythm?

My dance training won’t be denied: I am keenly aware of the rhythms that accumulating words create. Whether using sentences on a page or dancers on a stage, an artist’s goal is to fill blank space with movement. Tension. Subtle clues that direct the viewer’s eye and thoughts to an intended destination.

So think for a moment like a dancer and consider the way your paragraphs are choreographed. Does this one feature a rat-tat-tap dance, a gentle waltz, or a ballet complete with high lifts, low dips, and bravura technical feats?

I’m not talking the Rockettes here. Unless your goal is military rigidity, you don't want identical sentences hiking knees and flicking feet at predictable intervals. You want to create a purposeful mix of shapes, sizes and textures that will grab the reader’s interest and underscore your message.

Certain sentences spin and swirl, impressive in their sweeping beauty. Others stand stilted. Some stride forth with confidence, then back off. One might gain momentum on an accelerating run across the page that gobbles up space as though it were an unlimited resource—then stop for breath. Repeated elements, patterned elements, or restated elements can drive home a point.

Rhythm can also work against you so you must seek to control it. In your own reading you have no doubt played victim to the lulling effects of unwittingly repeated sentence structures. Did you start to drift away while reading one paragraph? Go back and analyze. Find the lulling rhythm.

In early drafts, such patterns are understandable. Our brains tend to process and express information in a predictable way. This is handy: it keeps us from having to invent too much while giving birth to the story. As manifested in later drafts, however, repetitive patterns do suggest laziness (or, to be fair, perhaps a tight deadline). Think of rhythm as polishing, something applied at the end of your process. Like wax.

Here are some constructs that are particularly problematic. Recognize anything?
Insulted, John slammed his mug on the table before speaking again. Coffee slopped onto the hand-rubbed finish they had worked weeks to perfect. Angry that he would do such a thing, Mary said, “Clean that up.”
I call these introductory clauses “emotion markers.” Put them into a first draft to guide the emotional development of the scene. But note the disturbing echo. The fix is simple: when rewriting, remove emotion markers. Often, you will see that indeed John has acted duly insulted, and Mary has responded in anger. If not, tweak the remaining prose.
John marched across the room, muttering under his breath and kicking the cat out of the way.
It’s the first draft. Your mind is racing through the material and your fingers are flying and you don’t yet know how to manage the actions in the scene so you dump them all into one sentence. In subsequent drafts, think again. The structure of this sentence defeats what the writer is trying to accomplish. (And heaven help the nodding-off reader if the next sentence says Mary stormed out of the house, starting the car and backing it through the closed garage door.)

Think of the verb choice: marching. Left, right left. Chop, chop, chop. Short sentences increase tension. Avoid pleasantries. Establish order—after all, John didn’t do all of these things at once, did he? Mary certainly couldn’t.

Better:
John marched across the room. Muttered under his breath. Kicked the cat.
As a counterpoint, you could follow that with:
Mary stormed out of the house with so many unspoken invectives jamming her mind that after she started the car she backed it right through the closed garage door.
This complex, almost run-on sentence helps to illustrate her emotional state.

This is the work—and if you ask me, the fun— of writing. All writers have to apply conscious thought to sentence construction, even published authors. I won’t name names, but take a look at this exchange from the fifth installment of a series that has sold fairly well:
“Hagrid,” said Harry, unable to stop himself, “where are you getting all of these injuries?”
“Eh?” said Hagrid, looking startled. “Wha’ injuries?”
“All those!” said Harry, pointing at Hagrid’s face.
“Oh…tha’s jus’ normal bumps and bruises, Harry,” said Hagrid dismissively. “I got a rough job.”

I could go on, but you get the picture. Dialogue attribution and its associated “beats”—the stage business that accompanies dialogue—is another area where disturbing rhythms lurk.

The best way to analyze the rhythm of your writing is to read it aloud. I have read aloud the entire series referenced above to my sons, and while I loved the story, there were some passages where I couldn’t keep myself from laughing as adverb-filled dialogue attribution and repetitive beats set up a singsong rhythm that detracted from the story’s drama.

Don’t make your readers laugh—let alone sleep!— when you don’t want them to. Manipulate rhythm. Invite the reader to dance, and never let him go.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kathryn Craft is a free-lance editor at Writing-Partner.com, a manuscript evaluation, line editing, and writer support service. For 19 years she wrote dance criticism for The Morning Call in Allentown, PA. She is currently seeking representation for a novel, The Sparrow That Fell From the Sky, which is set in the Philadelphia dance world.







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12 comments :

  1. Interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing :)

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  2. Thank you for this post. One technique I've used to practice listening to rhythms is songwriting. It's amazing what the rhythms of stressed-unstressed-stressed, or stressed-unstressed-unstressed-stressed, and having each syllable be important, can do for one's prose. Just thought I'd pass it along.

    Again, thank you, peace,

    Diane

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  3. What a great post. I'm getting ready to read my work in progress out loud to see if I am a repeat offender.

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  4. I'm not that great a dancer, but I try. I do understand the necessity of rhythm when writing. Mine tends to be fast. Sometimes I have to remind myself to make my sentences longer, add more description and slow things down a bit, since every scene can't be filled with tension.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
    http://www.morganmandel.com
    http://choiceonepublishing.com

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  5. I'm doing sentence level editing right now on a YA novel. I've been reading it outloud, trying to portray mood thru sentence length and structure. And I agree that this is a lot of the fun of writing. To take that explanation-filled first draft and transform it into something that sings.

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  6. I really connected to this post on a visceral level. Never thought to connect sentence structure with dancing and rhythm, but it makes total sense. Thank you.
    karen

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  7. What a great post!

    Often when I write, I strive to get the perfect rhythm--so much so that the words are almost secondary.

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  8. Thanks for this! Your fourth paragraph was as lyrical as it was informative.

    I think a lot about rhythm during my 2nd draft. Too much, perhaps. ;)

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  9. I had many years of both ballet and piano, so this post resonated with me on at least two levels! I'm very aware of rhythm when I write. And read. I do my best.

    Elspeth

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  10. Another great post, Kathryn. Like you, I have always paid close attention to the rhythm of words, but I'm not sure I have ever explained it as well as you did here.

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  11. Loved this post. Worth printing and saving.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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